The Tregaron Festival: Hot to trot

Forget Aintree. When it comes to racing horses, millions of devotees believe that 'trotting' is the real Sport of Kings. Cahal Milmo goes along for the ride at Britain's showpiece event
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The Independent Online

Huw Williams could barely contain himself as the 4.40 race at Pontrhydfendigaid reached its climax under a slate-grey Welsh sky. He shouted: "Get on you buggers, this is real racing, not some six-legged beauty contest."

Pacing neck-and-neck for the final 200 metres, the object of his excitement rounded the last bend at 30mph, with their legs splayed, whips lashing and the wheels of their chariots barely inches apart as the horses made the final dash for the line.

The drivers zipped past in a blur, suspended barely a foot from the ground on a "sulky" - a cart-like contraption fashioned from two large bicycle-type wheels and a thin metal bar with an outsize bicycle saddle in the middle.

At the edge of this equine duel, a crowd of 600 racegoers fortified by bread rolls stuffed with freshly roasted Welsh lamb, clapped and whooped as they sheltered under umbrellas in a thin August drizzle. Celebrating what turned out to be a £50 win, Mr Williams, 64, a local government worker, said: "I get rather excited. It's not racing as other people know it - this has a flavour of ancient times."

Ifan Davies, 38, watching the opening event of a sporting spectacle that has taken place on his doorstep every year for the last 21 years, was more precise. He said: "I can only describe it as being as exciting as a real-life Ben Hur. We don't quite have all the blood and guts but there is nothing quite like watching what looks like a row of chariots running abreast to the finishing line."

Welcome to the sporting phenomenon that is pacing (also known as " trotting"), considered superior to conventional horse racing across a swath of countries from Sweden to New Zealand. It attracts 40 million regular punters across North America and is worth more than £2bn a year in France. Globally, trotting is estimated to generate £10bn a year.

And where in Britain, one of the world's leading equine nations, might a lucrative sport that draws punters in their thousands to purpose-built hippodromes from Paris to Vancouver find its spiritual homeland? The answer is a large sheep field in deepest Cardiganshire.

The Tregaron Festival, the nation's showpiece trotting event, got under way yesterday witnessed by several hundred hardened aficionados and The Independent in driving showers from a row of temporary marquees and catering vans.

Pontrhydfendigaid, the Welsh-speaking hamlet some five miles north of Tregaron where the three-day meeting takes place, boasts one of Britain's most scenic race courses with a stunning mountain backcloth. It is also the most isolated.

Nestling at the foot of the Cambrian Mountains, it is serviced by one bus a day from Aberystwyth. It was no coincidence that, in contrast to many an urban 4x4, the long lines of Land Rovers and Toyota pick-ups in the car park were yesterday splattered with mud.

For 361 days of the year, the half-mile race course at Dolyrychain Farm, one of the few places in the area with an acre of flat land to accommodate a trotting track, is home to nothing more thoroughbred than a flock of lambs. But for the rest, the great and the good of British trotting, along with a sizeable Irish contingent, will queue along the B4343 for entry to an event that its organisers say is on a par with anything that Aintree, Ascot or Cheltenham can provide in terms of racing spectacle. By tomorrow evening, some 300 horses will have run in 34 races watched by a total crowd of some 10,000 people.

On-course bookies will have taken some £500,000 in bets and the owners of the winning horses will have shared a pot of £53,000, including Britain's biggest trotting race, the Welsh Classic, with a prize fund of £15,000. Not bad for a form of racing that boasts just a dozen full-time trainers in Britain and a cast of just 20 semi-professional drivers.

According to those behind the festival, it is precisely its status as one of the country's more unusual - not to mention perilous - participation sports that makes it worthwhile. Most of the drivers at the Tregaron Festival own their horses and train them.

In contrast to the multimillion- pound stud fees of thoroughbred racing, a pacing horse, known as a standardbred, which has a longer body and shorter legs than a thoroughbred, can be bought for as little as £1,000.

Huw Evans, chairman of the Tregaron Trotting Club, when he is not running the town's pharmacy, and a third-generation driver, said: "There aren't too many forms of racing where an ordinary individual can have their own brood mare, be a trainer and then drive that horse themselves.

"How often do you see Sheikh Mohamed out in jockey's colours? Once you have got that feeling of being involved in the sport at all levels it is very difficult to let go. That is what keeps you going.

"You have watched the horse you are driving being born as a foal and the small course means the spectators can see everything that happens rather than have to look through binoculars."

Those involved put much store by its community credentials. Mike Fields, an owner from Cumbria who travels to Tregaron each year, said: "If flat racing is the sport of kings then trotting is the sport of ordinary folk. I think we consciously choose to be different - we're like the rabble down in the valley while the aristocrats in Newmarket look down from their state-of-the-art stables.

"Let's just say you don't see too many Bentleys and shooting sticks at trotting meets."

To underline the point, the Tregaron Festival is staffed entirely by volunteers. The profits from the beer tent, suitably busy long before the first race, go towards funding the youth programme at Tregaron's rugby club, and the roasted lamb being shovelled into large rolls for hungry punters had been grazing on the course but a week or two ago.

Ifan Davies, whose father owns the race track and who spotted the opportunity to offer the farm's own livestock to punters, said: "It is very much about the sum of the community's parts - we offer the spectacle, the B&Bs are filled with visitors, the shops get customers and we sell our lamb."

But while those at the top of the sport are justly proud of its grassroots appeal, there are moves afoot to try to bring it to a wider audience and transform its status as the poor relation towards that enjoyed by trotting in America, Canada, France, New Zealand and Australia, where races are run with prizes of £150,000.

Among those enjoying this weekend's festival will be representatives from two of the biggest betting chains, William Hill and Ladbrokes, who are being wooed to add British harness racing to their in-shop racing channels.

This week's racing will be broadcast live for the first time on S4C, the Welsh language television channel. Advocates of the sport point to its recent growth, with total prize money up from £363,000 in 2001 to £512,000 last year. The number of horses raced has risen from 682 in 2001 to 856 last year.

The effort to broaden trotting's domestic appeal is being led by the British Harness Racing Club, whose president, the Labour peer Lord Lipsey of Tooting Bec, is a recent convert. The 57-year-old peer, who was due to race two of his own horses at Pontrhydfendigaid, admitted that the sport had suffered in the past from not being as well managed as thoroughbred racing.

He said: "It hasn't been professionally organised. Form isn't kept, there is no version of the Tote and it hasn't been brilliant at self-publicity. But all these things are being put right.

"There are proper stewards, the races are filmed and there is dope testing. And because of the very nature of the racing, there is no reason why it should not be the next huge sport in Britain.

"It is brilliantly tactical and far more exciting than flat and jump racing."

As the second race of yesterday's evening meeting got under way, it was hard to disagree. Each race is started with each nine-strong field of sulkys lining up behind a moving Land Rover with a starting gate suspended from its rear.

The contest begins when the vehicle reaches about 34mph and lifts up the gates, speeding off to allow the horses and their drivers to speed around for two laps of the half-mile course. Typically, each race lasts about two minutes, more often than not ending in a sprint to the line between up to four or five horses. The narrow tracks and wide sulkeys mean that collisions are a regular occurrence. All drivers must wear a helmet and body armour.

No driver has ever been killed in British harness racing, which started in the 1850s with village races throughout Wales and north England.

Unlike thoroughbred racing, where handicapping is done by weight, the more successful a trotting horse the further back it must start in the field - a 10- metre handicap for every previous race won.

Just to confuse matters, the curious gait of each horse in British trotting is actually "pacing" - meaning they move their legs laterally, with the near foreleg and near hindleg stepping forward simultaneously.

The same style is used in North America and the Antipodes, contributing to a growing market in Britain for American-bred horses, where the more advanced market means even a mediocre animal by American standards can be a successive winner on UK courses.

In France, the horses adopt the more natural trot, moving their legs diagonally and pacing is banned. The contrast is hampering efforts by French trainers to sell their excess blood stock, nurtured over 300 years, to Britain.

But as the bookies at the Tregaron Festival began to take early bets for Saturday's Welsh Classic, with a bottle of Welsh elderberry port to each heat winner, it is the bloodstock from another overseas source that was threatening to overshadow the homegrown talent.

Two of the first four races were won by Irish horses, part of a contingent of 54, including the curiously named Meadow Branch Gigolo, brought across the Irish Sea for the meeting by Irish trainers who increasingly see an opportunity in trotting to boost earnings.

One Cork-based trainer, who asked not to be named, said: "The sport is growing in Britain but frankly we have the better horses. Tregaron is a good opportunity to have some fun and hand some of the winnings back in the bar. But the point is we'll never be millionaires."

As country and western music blasted from one hospitality tent, part of an economic boon for the Tregaron area worth £300,000 over the three days, others agreed. Huw Evans said: "Nine out of 10 people who buy into trotting won't get their money back. It is an expensive hobby that you do for the love of it. We might lose that aspect of it if it became more of a national sport and that would be a pity."